Preston's 'balancing act' over Levelling Up Fund bid

Preston City Council will have to balance the potential benefits of a range of different projects as it formulates a bid to the government’s Levelling Up Fund.

That was the message from a senior councillor as he and cabinet colleagues agreed how the city would set about identifying one or more schemes that could help Preston secure the £20m on offer to it from a programme designed to reduce inequalities between different parts of the UK.

Cllr David Borrow, member for planning and regulation, was speaking to the Lancashire Post just before a cabinet meeting at which the process of drawing up a long and short list of proposals was laid out.

The city council will work with what it describes as “key networks, organisations and stakeholders” to identify the various potential projects that it could pitch to the government for funding. It will then narrow them down by assessing them against the factors that are deemed to make a strong bid – including the benefits it will bring, the way in which it will be delivered and how it represents good value for money.

Preston City Council is drawing up a bid to the Levelling Up Fund (image: Google)

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The authority is preparing to submit a bid during the second round window for access to the £4.8bn fund, a date for which is yet to be announced.

Cllr Borrow said that the city’s existing investment properties would be the “starting point” for developing the submission, but that the eventual bid would have to consider what he believes is likely to be revised government requirements compared to those set out during the first round of bidding – which Preston did not take part in – earlier this year.

“I would assume there will be a lesson learned [process] in government – and they will come out with amended criteria and we will examine that in detail.

“We have probably got to be looking at [projects] that will bring about economic improvement – sometimes a bit of infrastructure will open up opportunities [and] bring in jobs. Or are there things that will actually make the lives of poorer people across the city better – [perhaps] in terms of health or supporting opportunities for young people?

“We have got to make sure we get the money and make the best use of [it] for the city. That means balancing various projects against each other to see what would give the best overall outcome…and that’s part of the discussion that will take place over the next few months,” said Cllr Borrow.

Round one bids were expected to focus on smaller transport projects, town centre regeneration or cultural and heritage assets. Proposals from district authorities like Preston could be made up of a single scheme or several linked projects up to the value of the £20m on offer.

Cllr Borrow told the Post that it was possible that Preston’s bid could follow the model adopted for its submission to the government’s Towns Fund, which saw it suggest a number of connected initiatives to improve the Harris Quarter. However, he stressed that it was too early to rule anything in or out.

Papers presented to the cabinet state that Preston does not have “a well-developed ‘pipeline’ of capital projects – and a significant amount of further work will be required by the council for it to be able to prepare a Levelling Up Fund submission in the coming months”. However, the authority is not planning to issue an “open call” for ideas.

Preston has been given priority one status under the fund, meaning that it is considered to have the “highest levels of identified need”.

Any money secured from the government pot will have to be spent by March 2024, creating what Cllr Borrow said was a “tight timescale”.

As the Post has previously reported, campaigners wanting to see the Old Tram Bridge in Avenham Park either repaired or replaced – including former city councillor Daniel Dewhurst – have been pushing for the levelling up bid to be used for that purpose.

Under the government’s guidance for round one of the fund, it expects MPs to back one bid that they see as a priority. Although MP support is not a precondition of a successful submission, it wants councils to engage with parliamentarians about their plans.

A local authority can make one bid for every MP whose constituency lies wholly in that council’s boundaries. Where a constituency crosses local authority borders, the government says that one council should be identified as the “lead bidder”.

Sir Mark Hendrick’s Preston constituency is wholly inside the city council area, while Ben Wallace’s Wyre and Preston North patch and the Fylde constituency of Mark Menzies are partially within it.